Thursday, 25 November 2010

Appreciation or Appropriation?

It’s blog time again. Though I do sometimes wonder why I bother. According to the stats for this blog, the reason why most people arrive here by a very curly mile is because they are searching on Google for the term ‘CurlyWurly’.

So much for my highbrow aspirations. West Pier Words will be condemned forever to be known as the blog of the curly wurlies. Well, better than the blog of the short and curlies, maybe, but only by a slim coating of chocolate.

Hot Cross Bun Fight

On the subject of blogs, there has been much heat generated recently by the issue of copyright. It kicked off when Cooks Source Magazine was caught lifting stuff wholesale from the web. The editor, Judith Griggs, defended her action to one who was ripped off, Monica Gaudoi, by saying, ‘But honestly Monica, the web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it!’

Jane Smith gives a blow-by-blow account here. Nicola Morgan and Lynn Price wade in with their cudgels too.

What joy, therefore, to discover today two books that take old books to create new works without changing a word but by removing words.  

 Courtesy of Visual Editions

It began as I followed the scent of a new book by Jonathan Safran Foer, Tree of Codes, published by Visual Editions. The first mention I came across was posted by The New York Times. To quote the publishers, “Jonathan Safran Foer has taken his favorite book, ‘The Street of Crocodiles’ by Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, and used it as a canvas, cutting into and out of the pages, to arrive at an original new story.”

A Short Detour

Having never heard of Bruno Schulz, mea culpa, I took myself to Wikipedia to discover he was a Polish Jew, who ‘nurtured his extraordinary imagination in a swarm of identities and nationalities; a Jew who thought and wrote in Polish, was fluent in German and immersed in Jewish culture, though unfamiliar with the Yiddish language’.

Something of a hermit, Schulz preferred to remain in his provincial town from where he observed the lives of his fellow citizens in a series of letters to a friend. These were to form the basis of his first book, The Street of Crocodiles.

Schulz was also an inspired artist, a talent that prolonged his life for a brief period when he was ‘adopted’ by Felix Landau, a Gestapo officer of the Einsatzkommando, one of five sections of the Einsatzgruppen. This group was originally formed to follow behind the frontline troops in Russia and clean up the radical elements left behind, i.e. murder the Jews and Bolsheviks. 

The Einsatzgruppen were responsible for similar murderous work in Poland. (For an account, read Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning.)

Schulz was shot on 19 November, 1942 by a German officier, Karl G√ľnther, in retaliation for Landau’s execution of the former’s ‘pet Jew’: "You killed my Jew - I killed yours."

(My interest in the subject stems from the fact the mother of my children is a Polish Jew and most of her family on her father’s side died in the Holocaust; in all likelihood they were exterminated at Treblinka.)

A Humment

I arrive back at the Tree of Codes via Asylum where John Self reviews Judith Schalanshy’s Atlas of Remote Islands, which is ‘that rarest of things, a coffee-table book which is actually worth reading’.

The point of relevance is that later, in the comments, John provides a link to an excellent review posted on Tiny Camels of Foer’s Tree of Codes in a post entitled The Politics of Erasure: Tree of Codes versus A Humment.

A Humment is another book I have never heard of. Actually, less a book, more a work of art still in progress. It is the work of Tom Phillips, an English artist who takes a Victorian novel, W. H. Mallock’s A Human Document, and decorates it, leaving words linked in bubbles to create a new story. It was first published in 1970, since when there have been three new editions, though it would be more accurate to say three new works such is the degree of revision subjected to them by Phillips. 

Today’s excitement about A Humment is that it is going to be released as an iPad app. (It’s my birthday soon. Perhaps I will get one. One of each that is; original work, iPad, app. Ha! if Peppa Pigs could fly.)

A Question or Two

I presume both The Street of Crocodiles and A Human Document are out of copyright and therefore Foer and Phillips may do with them what they will. Is this the case, I don’t know?

Even if they were not, at what point does the reconstruction of a copyrighted piece take on the guise of art, i.e. a new and original work?

I referred to this issue last year in a post entitled, Cut, Paste & Copy: A Polemic. As I said at the time, I have written a 5,000-word short story as an exercise in existentialism where I took passages from the works of Henry Miller, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. I am sorely tempted to publish it in the form of an e-book to see what happens. (I would, of course, credit the passages lifted.)

PS The Guardian have just posted on the app for Tom Phillips' A Humment

Monday, 8 November 2010

Hiliary Mantel, Beyond Black

Just because Ms Mantel won the Booker prize in 2009 with Wolf Hall is no good reason for me to read it immediately. In fact, the opposite; it's a good reason for not reading it immediately. I haven't read Ms Mantel before and feel the need to get to know her first before taking on her award winning work. As for all newly acclaimed authors whom I have never read, I want first to know her backstory.

So when I spotted Beyond Black in a secondhand book stall down on the front at a small weekend market by West Pier a few months ago, I bought it and added it to my reading list.

As one who has never been overcome by Jane Austen, I am suspicious of women writing of women, and Beyond Black is a story almost exclusively of women. I am particularly suspicious of stories of women who dabble in the dark arts, believe in the occult and place their trust in fringe remedies for life threatening diseases, such as a severe hangover. [It is evident I would not be a natural supporter of the Tea Party were I an American.] And Beyond Black is all about women with these hobbies: Alison, the main protagonist, her mother and grandmother are all natural psychics and Alison, in particular, spends her life negotiating the ground between the spirit world and here.

As Fay Weldon says in her review in the Guardian, 'If, as a reader, you feel briskly and brightly that dead is dead, alive is alive, and anything else is nonsense, this novel is probably not for you.'

I will flatly contradict her: this novel is absolutely for you.

Though the story may revolve around Alison and the spirits that keep invading her space, the spirits of vile men she knew as a child growing up with an equally vile mother who survived by providing services for the squaddies from the barracks around Aldershot, the story is really of two strong individuals, Alison and her business partner and full-time companion, Collette, each dealing with their past. You may take the ghosts literally or figuratively.

Now stories by women of women who are fully rounded individuals with all their flaws, and who deal as best they can with life instead of being overwhelmed by it, I enjoy. Stories written as richly, and with such depth and beautifully observed detail as Beyond Black  are a treat all too rare.

Beyond Crusty

Today at 12.45 p.m. my first ever loaf was baked, classic soda bread, with the midwifery of a recipe from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Baker and bread are doing fine.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

That Was the Weekend That Was

I had a truly fabbie weekend. Sue, as in ex, roasted half a pig with crackling of such cracklyness Gordon Ramsay would have awarded it an expletive explosion of a volume that would equate to three stars in the more demur world of Michelin.

I salivate in memory as I type. (Not a pretty sight, and causing havoc with my keyboard.)

Another treat was to be driven for the first time by newly qualified Emily in her brand-old new car. I flinched not once. In fact, I was rather impressed by her competence though I managed to refrain from saying so. She is five-foot nothing and a swollen head might have overbalanced her and caused an accident.

And then there was Lady, Holly, Polly, the twelve-week old springer COCKER spaniel that is the new addition to Emily and Danny's household. Despite the rapid turnover of her name in a short life, Polly is so laid back they should have named her Galene, the Greek goddess of calm seas.

Then there was the trick 'n treating. Very funny. Sue lives in quite a posh bit of South London, and we traipsed around behind all the posh families who were knocking on the doors of those foolish enough to leave a lighted pumpkin on the gatepost.

'After you.'

'No, after you.'

'Please, you were first.'

'But your children are younger.'

''They may look such but pre-juvenile plastic surgery is so efficacious nowadays.'

'I couldn't possibly, you have put yours down for Harrow.'

'I happen to know yours are down for Roedean and Eton.'

'Only if the Lehman Brothers' bonus is not taxed to buggery by the government.'

'Don't worry… David went to Eton and Nick to Westminster, so…'

'I hear Harrow is very good.'

'After you.'